First impressions are everything, and a person can guess a lot about your potential characteristics by looking at your face.
Physically attractive people are perceived as smart and kind because of the halo effect. In men, a high facial-width-to-height ratio correlates with leadership, dominance, and strength. Humans tend to trust people with youthful features, average/similar faces, pronounced cheekbones, wide chin, and eyebrows that sit in the face’s center.
What Is Physiognomy?
Physiognomy is a person’s expressions or facial features, particularly when used to indicate a person’s character. It is largely a pseudoscience that dates back to the ancient Greeks. However, it’s not entirely false that humans make assumptions about other humans’ character based on just their looks.
Way back in around 500 B.C., Pythagoras rejected and accepted students based on how gifted he thought they looked. Aristotle had written that round faces were courageous, broad faces were “stupid,” small faces were steadfast, and big-headed people were mean.
Generally, physiognomy gained popularity in Europe around the 16th century. Many scientists, philosophers, and even physicians used physiognomy to gauge internal temperaments.
Giambattista Della Porta, who was an Italian scholar that is often considered the father of physiognomy, played a huge part in describing appearance and how it affects character in Europe back in the 1600s. He boiled down substances to obtain their “pure essence,” which he applied to people’s physical features and how it would reflect on their character. Della Porta’s book “De Humana Physiognomia” was one of the key factors that spread physiognomy across Europe. In the book, you will find illustrations of animal heads next to human heads. Della Porta implied that people who looked like certain animals would carry similar traits as the animal.
The above illustration insinuates that the man looks like a lion, implying that the man is courageous, strong, dominant, and such.
Physiognomy got more detailed in the 18th century thanks to Johann Caspar Lavater, referred to as the king of physiognomy. He made a book called “Essays on Physiognomy,” where he broke the face down into major pieces (eyes, mouth, brows, nose, etc.) into a detailed reading of what each feature means.
In fact, the term “stuck up” came from Johann Caspar’s Lavater’s book. People who had noses that bent slightly upwards were thought to have superior and contemptuous attitudes.
While physiognomy may not be true science, many studies back up how people instinctively assume things about other people’s character based on their looks. For instance, a person with thick, low brows and straight eyes may have a resting moody face, instinctively making people think they are aggressive.
One study looked at how facial features affect first impressions and personality (Wolffhechel et al., 2014). The study found that there were subtle yet significant results between “ratings” and individual personality traits. For instance, the researchers could judge how dominant and open a woman would be from their face.
So, why would physiognomy matter?
One study shows that it only takes a tenth of a second for a person to make a judgment of another person’s personality (Willis et al., 2006). It can be difficult to change someone’s original opinion of you, even if you are the stark opposite of their initial judgment. People will often treat you a certain way based on their snap judgments. For instance, they would be more likely to be kinder and help you if they think you have features that make you trustworthy. However, they may be wary or rude if you have “aggressive” features.
The Halo Effect
The halo effect is a cognitive bias where the overall first impression we get of a person influences how we think of them. For instance, we often think that attractive people are smart and kind.
Take an A-list celebrity who tops the “World’s Sexiest” list frequently, for example; we often think they are hard-working, successful, smart, and friendly. Since we think that the attractive person has those characteristics, we will also think of them as likable.
So, the halo effect works when a person is physically attractive. As the saying goes, “what is beautiful is also good,” so our minds often relate physical attraction to good character qualities. Therefore, physically attractive people tend to “get away” with more things because of the halo effect.
However, the halo effect is not limited to physical attractiveness. It can work with other personality traits as well. For instance, people will assume that a kind, sociable person will also be intelligent and likable.
The halo effect can have a huge impact on people’s perception of their character. Since some people are good looking, many people will often assume that they have positive traits. For example, let’s say that an attractive person likes the way that they look. Other people will then call them confident. However, a less attractive person who acts the same may be deemed as conceited.
What Makes a Face Trustworthy?
Are Trustworthy Faces Attractive?
According to one study, people often want their partners to have a “trustworthy” face when looking for a long-term relationship (Carrito et al., 2020). Psychologists have found some common features that can make a person look trustworthy, such as:
- Shallow nose sellion
- Pronounced cheekbones
- Eyebrows that sit higher at the center of the face
- Wide chin
Babyfaces are often more “trustworthy” compared to more mature faces. It is likely because babyface features resemble youth and innocence, which often leads to looking more trustworthy.
Babyfaces often have features that were mentioned above, like high raised eyebrows. Some other features of a typical babyface include:
- Round cheeks
- Small chin
- Round, big eyes
- Short, small nose
- Big, curved forehead
A huge element of why babyfaces might be seen as more trustworthy is their “doe-eyed” look that we often see in babies. When we look at actual babies, we do not think that they can do anything wrong, so people with babyfaces may have that same influence on other people. This an important feature of attractiveness called neoteny, and it merits its own discussion, especially due to its importance for women.
Ironically, a study shows people with babyfaces may be more likely to exhibit delinquent behavior (Zebrowitz et al., 1998). The study showed that the babyfaced adolescent boys were more likely to commit crimes, probably to refute the stereotype that people with babyfaces are physically weak.
However, women with babyfaces tend to be more attractive, so they may not show the same behavior babyfaced men would. Women with babyfaces are found to be more attractive worldwide (Jones et al., 1995).
But men may not have it as bad either, according to one study. Researchers scanned women’s brains while looking at photos of babyfaced men and babies, and the researchers found that the neural activation patterns when looking at the babies and the babyfaced men were the same (Zebrowitz et al., 2009).
Average Face: Trustworthy
It’s well known that average faces are perceived as more attractive, but it also helps build trust (contributing to the halo effect).
One study notes that people tend to trust others with similar faces (DeBruine et al., 2002). In the study, the subjects were shown two faces to see which face they would be more likely to trust. Each subject was shown the face of an unknown person and a face that resembled their own face. When the subjects were shown faces similar to their own faces, researchers found they were more likely to trust that face.
Therefore, having an “average” face could be an advantage. A person with average facial features (depending on ethnicity) will have more resemblances with those around them and potentially gain their trust.
Face Shapes and FWHR (Facial Width-to-Height Ratio)
FWHR reflects the effects of testosterone on behavior and facial morphology for men. It often gets correlated with leadership.
Dominance & Testosterone
Hahn et al., 2017 look at how high FWHR could relate to leadership and dominant behavior. The study found that many of the world’s influential leaders have high FWHRs, from popes to government officials.
One study focused on how FWHR and sociologically relevant dominance behavior correlated in male and female bonobos (Martin et al., 2019). The study revealed a strong correlation between affiliative dominance and FWHR (Cohen’s ?f2~=0.54).
The study also noted that testosterone was associated with FWHR and dominance compared to the FWHR and testosterone production from male and female bonobos.
While high FWHR could indicate leadership capabilities and dominance, it could also signal aggression. One study noted a small yet significant relationship between high FWHR and aggression (Haselhuhn et al., 2015).
You may appear more aggressive if you have a high FWHR coupled with other “aggressive” physical traits. Perceived aggressive traits include broader chins, horizontally narrow eyes, a large nose, and prominent eyebrows (Trebicky et al., 2013).
FWHR could also be linked to unsociable behavior in men (Anderl et al., 2016). The study found a correlation between male FWHR and different psychopathy traits. The study noted a positive relationship between FWHR and fearless dominance, but they also noted overall psychopathy scores and self-centered impulsivity.
Another potential downside may come from the width of your face, particularly for men. Men with greater facial width tend to be more likely to exploit other people’s trust, while other people were less likely to trust the wider-faced men (Stirrat et al., 2010).
Women with rounder face shapes tend to be perceived as kind, trustworthy, and youthful. The effect can be stronger if the round face has “babyface” features like large, round eyes and arched eyebrows.
Women with more angular face shapes are often seen as powerful and strong compared to their softer, rounder counterparts. However, people may mistake the angular female face shapes to be “mean” and “evil.”
One study looked into how facial shape is associated with physical strength (Butovskaya et al., 2018). The study’s goal was to see if facial shape correlated with men’s physical strength from different races since most of the studies before it were done on men in Western societies.
The researchers noticed that previous studies showed that strong men from industrialized societies often had rounder, more robust faces with strong jawlines. The researchers decided to focus the study on men from an African pastoralist society, the Maasai of Northern Tanzania.
The researchers found that the handgrip strength and face shape in the Maasai were similar to the samples from Western societies. The men who had higher handgrip strength often had a broader forehead and wider faces.
Eyes are the “windows to the soul” and are often one of the first facial features people notice. For instance, there is a significant relationship between interpupillary distance (wide-set eyes) and perceived intelligence (Lee et al., 2017).
There are not many actual studies to prove people’s character assumptions of other people’s eye shapes. However, there are some general assumptions that most people agree on. For instance, round eyes often indicate that a person is expressive and emotional. People with babyfaces often have round eyes, meaning round eyes could also make you look kind and youthful. People with deep-set eyes are often found to be observant, insightful, and introspective. People with prominent eyes (ones that slightly pop out) tend to appear more sensitive and warm.
Eyebrows can often significantly impact how people perceive you. For instance, people with thick eyebrows are often seen as confident and aggressive, whereas people with thinner eyebrows can be seen as more cautious and unsure.
People with straight eyebrows may be seen as logical thinkers. People with highly arched eyebrows may appear intimidating and perfectionist.
Much like eye shapes, there are very few actual studies done on what lip shapes say about you. However, some studies focus on mouth width and its impact on perceived and actual leadership ability.
One study noticed that the mouth width impacts people’s choice in leaders (Re et al., 2016). The study applied their findings to real leaders. The study found that mouth width correlates to the CEO’s leadership abilities and their actual leadership success. Additionally, the same study notes that people with wider mouths were more likely to win the U.S. senate.
While there are no studies to back-up how your nose will influence other people’s perception of you, many people can agree on similar assumptions. For example, people with bigger noses may have a large ego and be more driven. On the other hand, people with button-like noses may appear more kind and caring.
Some people may have some features that people relate to perceived intelligence. For instance, mouth curvature and eyelid openness can be correlated to perceived intelligence, but not actual IQ. As stated earlier, people with wide-set eyes are more likely to be seen as smart, and there is also a correlation between wide-set eyes and measured IQ.
One study noticed a great instance of similar features in the top ten villains (Croley et al., 2017). The study states that the villains were more likely to have similar dermatologic features, such as facial scars, facial verruca vulgaris, alopecia, deep rhytides on their faces, etc.
The study found that villains had these dermatologic features for a long time, dating back to the silent age of film. Therefore, dermatologic features are often used in films to help the general public differentiate the “good” characters from the “bad” characters.
However, the study also notes that the use of dermatologic features in films could also contribute to people’s tendency towards prejudice and misunderstandings of certain diseases.
So, if there are traits commonly associated with villains, why are there none for heroes? The most notable villains show a much more significant incidence of dermatologic features than the most notable heroes, with the percentages being 60% for villains than 0% for heroes. Therefore, people often link damaged and/or unhealthy skin to being “evil.”
Other features may also leave “dangerous” or “evil” impressions on people. For instance, downward-pointing triangles (pointy chins) and evil-looking eyebrows often trigger our “threat” instinct (Watson et al., 2012).
The study noted that simple geometric shapes could quickly grab people’s attention, especially if the shapes are related to good or bad aspects. Past research shows that people often pick out bad faces quickly in a crowd. This study showed that people could spot a downward pointing triangle as fast as a bad face. Downward-pointing triangles often convey negative emotions, causing us to see them as a “threat” and react to a downward pointing triangle quicker than other shapes.
You can see classic examples of downward-facing triangles and “evil” eyebrows by looking at old cartoon villains. The representation of what an evil person would look like could be a huge reason we associate these characteristics with adults’ negative feelings.
While tattoos may not always be on your face, they often grab people’s attention. They could also completely change the initial impression people had of you based on your face.
For instance, tattoos may suggest that you are sexually promiscuous. One study gathered data on 450 college students and found that tattooed respondents were more likely to be sexually active than those without tattoos (Koch et al., 2006).
Another study found that people who got body modifications (tattoos, piercings, etc.) were more likely to engage in intercourse earlier in life and be sexually active (Nowosielski et al., 2012). However, researchers also found no significant difference in sexual orientation, sexual abuse, risky sexual behavior, etc., between the two groups.
According to the study, adults who got body modification are four times less likely to engage in religious practices. However, that could potentially be from most religions not being fond of tattoos. Of course, most religious people nowadays may be more accepting of the idea of tattoos.
Keep in mind that not everyone’s perception of you will change if they meet you and see your tattoos. Many people, typically the younger generations, believe that tattoos often have meaning for the wearer or art. Therefore, younger people may not have any negative thoughts associated with tattoos because it is becoming a cultural norm. For instance, it is becoming more socially acceptable for people in the workplace to have tattoos because younger people often do not see how it will affect their work.
Facial Gestures and Expressions
Certain facial expressions and gestures can greatly impact what people think you are feeling or your personality. We know that there are typically agreed-upon expressions and actions that can make people understand what you feel (for example, raised eyebrows often come from shock).
However, we may subconsciously send out messages to people with minute changes in our facial expressions. For instance, women that purse their lips often signal that they are not interested in a sexual advance, and they may perform this action whether they know it or not.
However, it may be important to note that the same gestures can have different meanings (whether by a person’s own understanding or by the culture itself). For example, raised eyebrows often relate to surprise, but some people may find that raised eyebrows signal interest.
Cultural Differences in Physiognomy
To some degree, physiognomy may be the same for different cultures. One study found that a vast majority agreed on what features portrayed dominance and happiness (Keating et al., 1981). For instance, most participants agreed that thick lips and dark eyes were “happy” traits whereas relatively broad faces and receded hairlines were “dominant” traits.
For instance, oval face shapes in physiognomy often mean a person is fearless, dedicated, diplomatic, and intelligent. In Chinese culture, an oval face shape is one of the ideal face shapes, and it could mean that the person is outgoing, open-minded, and a perfectionist.
Another example would be how Caucasians and Chinese participants perceived facial expressions (Jack et al., 2011). The participants were asked to categorize various facial expressions if they thought the expression was happy, angry, sad, etc.
The researchers found that Western Caucasians focused on the mouth and eyebrows to represent facial features, whereas the Chinese participants relied on the eyes. Based on how the different cultures read facial expressions, it would be easy to see miscommunication occur when it comes to “reading” faces.
The photo above shows the results of the study. A good example of how facial expressions are perceived would be how the participants saw “disgust.” The East Asian participants looked at the eyes, while the Western Caucasian participants got the signal from looking at the furrowed brows and scowling mouth.
As mentioned earlier, physiognomy books popularized the science across Europe. You can see how physiognomy influenced much of 18th-19th century European art. However, it was very likely that the European artists assumed cultural superiority from Ancient Greece. They often created art that depicted other cultures not only to look generally less attractive, but they also depicted their facial features and expressions a certain way to make them look morally inferior.
Of course, that was a completely different time with different views.
Ultimately, we can see a few differences between how different cultures see people. Some aspects may be similar (for example, babyfaced women are often seen as innocent and beautiful in most cultures), but there can be some stark differences depending on the culture.